was swift. It took only two weeks for individual trials to begin, and with
angry crowds chanting and singing, "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town
Tonight" outside the courtroom, and the accused men represented by two
incompetent lawyers, the first two Scottsboro defendants were convicted
and sentenced to death. But, there was an appeal, and the Supreme Court
reversed the convictions, ordering new trials.
What's Real Intelligence--about the World and Ourselves?,
a discussion of Samuel Leibowitz
& the Scottsboro Case
Defense of the young men was organized by The International Labor Defense,
and for the new trials, they wanted the nation’s best known lawyer, Clarence
Darrow, but now in his 70's, he was not up to it. So, they tried
for the next best, Samuel Leibowitz, a Jew from Brooklyn--who, astoundingly,
would be asked to go to the deep South to defend the young Black men. “Intelligence,”
Mr. Siegel said, “has to do with a love for the happening as fact. We want,
when intelligent, to make the fact beautifully ours.” Knowing it was a
longshot and that they likely couldn’t afford him, the I.L.D. appealed
to Leibowitz’s “love for the happening as fact.” They wrote to him:
" You will
not only be representing nine innocent boys, you will be representing a
nation of twelve millions of oppressed people struggling against dehumanizing
Leibowitz had many lucrative
cases waiting at home. He could have easily said ‘no,’ but this met something
deep in him—a chance to be clearly useful. He wrote back that as a “Brooklyn
Democrat” he didn’t agree with the political views of the I.D.L.,which
were of the Left, “But this,” he said:
"is about the
basic rights of man. If I serve this cause, as you suggest…I will not serve
it for money, nor will I permit you to repay any expense I may incur."
Leibowitz was "in." He had never been to the South, but on his first visit
to Scottsboro he got a taste of what he'd be facing. The people wanted
what they called "justice." In other words, they wanted the defendants
hanged to teach all Black people a lesson. Never in his career had he faced
anything like this. He decided his best chance would be to challenge
the system of jury selection in Alabama that had excluded all Black persons.
He saw to it that about a dozen Black people appear for jury selection—the
first time this had been done in the South. Among them was a 55-year
old man, John Sanford, whom the Attorney-General Thomas Knight immediately
began to question in an angry patronizing way, pointing a finger directly
at Sanford's face, saying, "Now John…” At this point, Leibowitz snapped,
"Please move away from the witness, take your finger out of his eye and
call him, Mister Sanford." From this moment on, feeling ran high against
Leibowitz who had the nerve to ask Knight to call a Black man 'Mister."
There were death threats against him. The National Guard was called
out to protect Leibowitz and his wife, Belle. One man was heard to remark,
"It'll be a wonder if he leaves this town alive." But Leibowitz had a large
purpose and he seemed to take on more courage.
the trial of the first defendant, Heywood
Patterson, the doctor who examined the women after the charges had been
made, testified that neither showed any evidence that a rape had occurred.
And one of the women, Ruby Bates, actually testified that she was told
to frame the defendants to avoid a morals charge against herself.
Despite this, the all-white jury came in laughing with a guilty verdict
against Patterson. But in a surprise two months later, Judge John
Horton set aside the verdict saying the evidence did not support it. His
courage would cost him his judgeship in the next election.
trials continued in the next year with a new, segregationist Judge, and
despite the lack of evidence, guilty verdicts were returned against the
first two defendants. In his lecture, Mr. Siegel said, “intelligence can
be defined as the ability to take care of oneself and also to care as such.”
Terribly frustrated, Leibowitz could have easily given up at this point,
but defiantly, he said, "These young men are absolutely framed. I'll fight
till hell freezes over to save them!"
in the Nation's Highest Court
In January, 1935,
Samuel Leibowitz took the Scottsboro Case to the Supreme Court. For
the first time in his career he was nervous. A criminal lawyer rarely appeared
before the High Court. And he was told his usual emotional approach
wouldn’t work here—the Justices were only interested in constitutional
law. “To want the new,” said Mr. Siegel, ”to want to be at home in it,
is a measure of intelligence in the most thorough sense.” Leibowitz met
“the new” with relish, arguing that although Alabama law did not state
that Black persons be barred from jury duty, actual jury selection
did exclude them and this was unconstitutional. He told the Court
that names of six Black persons had been forged on jury rolls after the
first trial. Forgetting the warning about emotion he said passionately,
"This is fraud, not only against the defendants but against the very Court
itself." "Can you prove this forgery?, Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes
snapped."I can Your Honor," Leibowitz said, "I have the Jury rolls here
with me." The Chief Justice bent over the pages. Finally he raised
his head, "It's as plain as daylight," he said as he passed it to Justice
Louis Brandeis, then to Justice Benjamin Cardozo, and the others.
Six weeks later, the court handed down a unanimous opinion—Black people
had been barred from jury duty, the convictions were reversed and new trials
ordered. Said Leibowitz,"I am thrilled beyond words."
But, a year later, Alabama convicted four of the Scottsboro defendents
for a fourth time, though dropping the death penalty for life sentences.
And 12 Black people were interviewed for the Jury--the first time that
had happened in the South since reconstruction days. Leibowitz had brought
the 14th amendment—due process for all citizens--to life in the South.
Then, a shocking development--Alabama dropped rape charges against the
five remaining defendants--four to be released immediately. Elated,
Leibowitz knew he still had to get them out of Alabama safely. A sullen
crowd gathered near the jail. “Intelligence,” Mr. Siegel stated “is the
ability of the self to become at one with the new.” Leibowitz had to quickly
become one with this new situation. He secretly arranged for two cars to
be at the back of the jail. He got the young men in the cars and they all
sped away from the crowd. They didn't breathe freely until they had crossed
the Alabama-Tennessee border, then onto a train bound for New York's Grand
Central Station. There, they were met by a mob, but not the kind they had
feared all those years-—there were 20 thousand, happy, cheering people
welcoming them to New York. Within the next decade, the remaining
Scottsboro defendants were also freed, albeit suffering from the effects
of the time spent in horrible Alabama jails.
Some years later, in 1949, Leibowitz, well into his second career as a
Judge in Brooklyn's Criminal Court, was in Ebbets Field watching his Dodgers
when he was asked by biographer Reynolds, “Judge, What did the Scottsboro
Case mean to you?” Pointing to Jackie Robinson, the first African-American
to play in the major leagues, he said, "Baseball wasn't worthy to be called
our national game until Black people had every right to play in the big
leagues." And he added, "I like to watch Jackie playing alongside
Pee Wee Reese of Louisville, Kentucky, each encouraging the other.
I feel they’re molding a new and fine tradition. Yes, I think I had
a little to do with that, and that's what the Scottsboro case means to
Real intelligence, Aesthetic Realism shows, is that beautiful oneness of
justice to humanity and ourselves. It has never been needed more in the
world than now!